Laguna Beach City Council reaffirms decision to reopen Hotel Laguna restaurant and lobby

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The renovated restaurant at Hotel Laguna overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Photo courtesy of Laguna Beach Co.

Hotel Laguna’s restaurant and lobby could open to the public by Aug. 31, a senior city staffer said Tuesday during a wide-ranging discussion with the City Council.

In the wake of public scrutiny of a June 29 closed session meeting about the historic hotel, the City Council voted 3-2 (Councilmembers Toni Iseman and George Weiss opposed) to concur with city staffers’ approvals to reopen the hotel lobby and restaurant.

“We’re looking forward to finally welcoming the community back to Hotel Laguna,” Laguna Beach Co. Vice President Hasty Honarkar said in a statement. “We anticipate opening the doors in the next few weeks.”

Laguna Beach building officials still need to issue a temporary certificate of occupancy before the public can patronize the restaurant, Community Development Director Marc Wiener said. The timing for the reopening date also depends on the Orange County Health Care Agency issuing a permit, Hasty Honarkar said.

On Tuesday, Wiener recalled happenings at the historic building since its ground lease was acquired by the Laguna Beach Co. in 2019. During the discussion, City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said the Honarkar family told her they’d consider suing Laguna Beach if city officials didn’t allow the reopening of the hotel’s restaurant and lobby, which isn’t subject to appeal before the California Coastal Commission. Laguna Beach partially withdrew a stop-work order on July 15, allowing an interior remodel to resume on the hotel’s first floor.

City building officials are authorized to issue stop-work orders, which typically don’t require city council approval or a public hearing, Wiener said. On June 29, city management sought to advise the City Council of a plan to partially withdraw Hotel Laguna’s red tag because they anticipated a decision would launch lawsuit threats from either the Laguna Beach Co. or community advocates.

Councilmember George Weiss has consistently held that a lawsuit was never discussed at the controversial closed session and a related council vote was never publicly reported, creating a Brown Act violation. The City Council subsequently censured him for leaking confidential information from the meeting.

City Attorney Phil Kohn said Tuesday that he stands by his earlier comments that there was no Brown Act violation. Mayor Bob Whalen agreed with the legal analysis that the City had sufficient cause to discuss Hotel Laguna in closed session.

“You don’t have to talk about litigation to have significant exposure,” Whalen said. “But the Hotel Laguna and the status of it over there on June 29 was fraught with possibilities of litigation from the Coastal Commission or members of the public or from… the applicant himself.”

On Aug. 9, Village Laguna sent a letter to the City Council demanding that it cure actions at the June 29 meeting, arguing they violated public meeting laws and should be rescinded. Such letters are typically the precursor to a lawsuit and state law provides cities 30 days to decide to how to respond.

City Attorney Phil Kohn recommended Tuesday that the City Council take necessary actions to avoid a costly lawsuit, which included a hearing a staff report and public comments on Hotel Laguna.

“It is not a concession or admission of any wrongdoing or error that was committed but more importantly it would be for the public purpose of avoiding the distracting, time-consuming, and expensive use of city and community resources for possible litigation that can be readily avoided,” Kohn said.

Village Laguna doesn’t plan to move forward on its Brown Act complaint following the City Council’s latest action, the organization said in a statement Wednesday.

“We have delivered the message to the Council that it cannot meet in secret on important projects like the Hotel Laguna, and we do not intend to pursue the matter further,” the group said. “We remain concerned, however, that the Council is misinformed about key provisions of the Brown Act, especially the noticing provisions for closed sessions.”

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